How to Write a Resume That Stands Out
You finally found it! The perfect job for you. Now, all you have to do to get the process started is to submit your resume. The problem is that hundreds of your peers are probably thinking exactly the same thing. How do you stand out?
You finally found it! The perfect job for you. Now, all you have to do to get the process started is to submit your resume. The problem is that hundreds or even thousands of your peers are probably thinking exactly the same thing about exactly the same job. So how do you create a one-page document that will make you and your accomplishments stand out from the crowd?
Your resume is a key part of the job application process: it is the first document that an employer reviews to determine whether they will interview and eventually employ you. Remember that employers often have very limited time to perform this duty. Crafting a strong resume really matters!
Resumes communicate who you are and what you have accomplished. They may be the only document an employer sees to evaluate your record before making a decision to move forward with your application, or they may be used in conjunction with resources like LinkedIn or professional networking profiles and/or a cover letter. A resume that “stands out” in a positive way is one that has been written thoughtfully, clearly and concisely, effectively communicating your abilities and strengths in a very brief space.
Six basic tips will help you build an outstanding professional resume. Note that resumes may vary by professional field (e.g. engineering vs. non-engineering), by location or by other factors such as professional degree. These tips are designed around some of the most common sections and most useful points for resumes across different types.
Tip 1: How to Write an Education Section that Stands Out
The education section demonstrates that you have the academic qualifications for the position. The key questions you should ask yourself while writing this section is, “Have I clearly communicated the strongest and most relevant aspects of my educational experience?” The next question is, “Is this section organized in a way that is easily readable by the employer?”
The education section is important for all applicants but may be weighted differently depending on how long it has been since you graduated from a degree program. For instance, an employer may have a different level of interest in the educational history of a college senior, compared to someone who has been professionally working for several years after college. Understanding this fact may influence where you choose to place this section on your resume.
In general, you should include all of the higher education that you may have had, including undergraduate, graduate, or professional schooling. You may also consider including online courses, certificates, and completed programs through companies like Coursera. Most people list their experiences in an order called reverse chronological, meaning that they list the most recent experience first, and work backwards down the page.
For each listed school, provide the full name of the school or online program, the years of your attendance, your major or majors, if applicable, as well as a minor if applicable. Include the type of degree received (e.g. a Bachelor of Arts or Master of Science) and the year of graduation. If you are graduating soon, include the month and year of graduation so employers know when you will be available to work. If you have studied abroad, include the institution, program of study, and any relevant coursework.
You may want to include which semesters you qualified for special academic recognition, if any. Other special awards, scholarships, or competitive grants can also be listed in this section. If you have non-academic awards, such as for sports or community service, you may choose to create a separate section of your resume for honors and awards.
Tip 2: How to Make the Experience Section Stand Out
Along with education, your experience is one of the most important ways to show that you are qualified for a position. Use this section to clearly convey your strongest professional experiences, whether paid or unpaid. Be sure to give detailed aspects of your roles and responsibilities for each listed position. Emphasize any relationships or similarities between your past experiences and the job you want. You should also include the start and end dates of your involvement with each organization, and any key accomplishments from the role. Don’t forget to include where the company is located, including city and state/province, or even country if different from your home country.
Ask yourself: while involved with the company, did I win any awards, get any special recognition, make new discoveries, start a new program? If so, what happened and what were the results? Quantify your experiences when you can! As the expression goes, “Show don’t tell.” In other words, you can more effectively convey a point by giving concrete examples, rather than through vague descriptions. Consider the following examples.
Improved worker productivity significantly, leading to recognition from upper management.
(A resume reader may ask: What does ‘improved’ mean? What does recognition mean? How much have you improved it by?)
Improved quarter returns by 25%, exceeding projections and leading to the Top Manager Award, given to only one manager in the company per year.
When it comes to language, be honest about your job functions while thinking of professional ways to present your experiences.
Sometimes people fall into a trap of thinking that their job or internship experience won’t sound impressive enough to list. The job may have felt like “sitting at a desk, answering the phone.” True, but you may have been performing other responsibilities or developing useful job-related skills without realizing that you were!
When you were at a desk, were you at the FRONT desk? Were you the only person or the main person in this position? Were you overseeing anything while you were sitting there? Were you the sole person responsible for any tasks? Did you have to learn how to deal calmly and confidently with any customer issues? Did people occasionally ask you to take on additional responsibilities, even for a short time?
It is fair to say that a person sitting at a front desk, may have been MANAGING the front desk, or even managing the desk when the person’s boss was away. Time during which an individual is placed in charge of a business or an office, even if for a limited time, can convey responsibility to a prospective employer.
Look at your accomplishment bullet and ask yourself:
- What did I do in the job?
- Using what?
- With whom?
- To what extent or impact?
Sometimes you may need to pare down your list in order to avoid making your resume too lengthy. Try to select the accomplishments based partly on how impressive they are and partly on how well they relate to the position you want. To describe your experience, always use more than one sentence or bullet. That said, word economy in your bulleted descriptions is also important. Try to keep each bulleted description or sentence to one or two lines at most. You can often rephrase a description, eliminating words while keeping the meaning. The more information you can present clearly and concisely within the short resume format, the more the employer will understand what you can do for them.
Remember that by providing relevant details in each statement of your experience, you will give the employer enough information to evaluate you and also provide them with ideas of what they might want to discuss with you in an interview.
Tip 3: How to Create a Leadership and Activities Section that Stands Out
For many people, especially students and recent graduates, a Leadership & Activities section can be a fantastic differentiator for your resume. If you have not been in the workforce for long, or if you have only worked summers and part-time, then you may not have much relevant content to add to your Experience section. A strong Leadership & Activities section can help you fill that gap while also telling an employer something about you as a person.
When creating the section, you should first consider what student organizations and activities you would want to include. Then, you should consider what you would want to write about each one. In general, this section is much like the Experience section, except that it is about what you have done in a personal, rather than professional, setting.
Of course, because student organizations and activities are personal, you should be careful about which ones you choose to list; they should be appropriate to a professional setting. For example, you should probably not choose to share that you were chosen “Top Drinker” of your college’s “Beer Keg of the Day” club. On the other hand, if you volunteered at a food bank, wrote for a school publication, or had a membership in an honor society, those accomplishments would be worth sharing.
Most importantly, you should include student organizations and activities where you have made significant contributions or held leadership positions. Just as you did in the Experience section, you should think about what you did in the organization, any responsibilities you had, any skills you used, and any knowledge you gained. If you made improvements to the student organization or activity, definitely include concrete examples. Make sure to consider if any of your experiences with student organizations and activities could be related to the position you are applying for. Could any of the skills you have learned be useful in the job?
Because student organizations and activities can offer students leadership opportunities and experiences that are often limited to experienced professionals in companies, this section is your chance to show not only that you are qualified for the position but that you have even greater potential. Make the most of this opportunity to show the employer what you can do!
Tip 4: How to Highlight Your Skills
Another important component of what defines an attractive candidate in the modern economy is their skill set. Because employers want people who can quickly start being productive, they care about what skills a job prospect has, particularly in certain technical fields. In most cases, skills are incorporated into the Experience section, if you acquired skills as part of your internship or job, and in the Education section, if you obtained the skills through coursework, research, or projects. Sometimes people with additional skills, such as technical skills, foreign language, or certifications obtained outside of university, will place them into a separate section at the end of the resume. Whichever format you choose, you still need to emphasize the skills you have, so that an employer can easily see how you can help them.
You should ask yourself a few important questions. What skills do I have? What skills are my target employers looking for? Are my skills hard skills (i.e. technical, like computer programming) or soft skills, such as the ability to listen?
Make a list! Separate the skills into hard skills and soft skills. What skills are most in demand (on both lists) for the position you are interested in (One good way to decide this is to look at job listings for many similar positions and note how often a particular skill is listed.)? How can you highlight your proficiency in these skills?
Lead with your strongest skills and/or the ones that seem the most marketable. Let’s say you know the programming language Python. How well do you know it? How many years have you used it? Do you have any specialized knowledge and ability that may set you apart from a competing applicant? Do you have demonstrations of your work anywhere for a prospective employer to see?
Here’s an example of a skills entry that might be included into the Experience section:
Programming: 8 years of experience with Python and similar scripting languages, wrote MyFirstPythonProject software available on GitHub
Useful tip: Artists may have portfolios for their artistic work. Examples of appropriate work, such as for coding, may not be a bad idea to have available in addition to a resume!
Even if your field is not technical, you may still have important hard skills. Do you have experience with popular office software, such as Excel, PowerPoint, or Access? Do you know any foreign languages, even at a basic level? Think about not only what might be required in the day-to-day performance of the job, but what other skills could potentially be useful to the employer.
You will want to include all the relevant skills to demonstrate your qualifications, without including too much less-relevant information which could distract from your message. Think carefully about which skills you want to include, and which could be left out. Remember to choose your words economically to maximize content in a minimum of space. With a little effort, your skills details can transform your resume from a simple list of accomplishments to a document that gets an employer thinking about all the great ways you could contribute!
Tip 5: Formatting and Making the Resume Look Professional
Believe it or not, the appearance and organization of a resume can greatly affect the response. The first hurdle for any resume is to get the employer to read it. An attractively presented, concise resume is easy for a recruiter to pick up. On the other hand, if a resume is 5 pages, written in 6-point font, a prospective employer may not think that it is worth the time to find a magnifying glass and read it. In most cases, a resume should not exceed one page (sometimes two pages, mostly for more experienced candidates, or in scientific and technical fields where publication lists can be lengthy), which has a few key sections that are separated from one another or clearly delineated.
Here are some suggestions to make the format stand out positively:
- Use 10-12-point font or larger. (10 point may even sometimes be too small, and the choice can depend on the chosen font.) Your audience should easily be able to read the size of the writing. Often prospective employers may not have perfect vision, so readability may create problems if the text is too small.
- Use a clean, professional-looking font. Don’t use fonts that are overly artistic and hinder the ability for the reader to understand them. Some find fonts like Times New Roman most clearly readable; others find competing fonts better. The font is just an aspect of the writing; don’t let it overpower the words themselves.
- Use respectable margins. Don’t try to deviate too much from 0.5 margins at either side. Also, don’t make the margins too large, beyond 0.75 or 1 unit on either side. Around 1 unit on the top and bottom should be acceptable.
- Use adequate spacing.
- Abbreviate months of employment.
- Include proper contact information. Most people include full name, address, email address and at least one phone number at the top of the document.
Tip 6: Revision and Review
One of the most important steps to writing a good resume is having others you trust look it over. A small spelling or grammar error on a resume could cause problems by making it seem like you lack attention to detail.
You can start with standard spelling and grammar checking programs. However, while these programs are very helpful, they are not enough by themselves. For example, the programs may not flag errors with homophones (e.g. hair and hare). They also have difficulty with uncommon, technical, or foreign words that may not be in their dictionaries. In addition, they are not looking for formatting inconsistencies or at the overall appearance of the resume. While computer programs can help with many issues, there is still no substitute for the human eye.
Start by printing a copy of your resume and looking for errors and inconsistencies yourself. Then, present copies to others along with a description of the job or educational opportunity that you are applying for. When presenting your resume to others, consider at least two kinds of people: a peer, and an experienced professional or teacher. Each may identify different issues with the resume.
Ask the reviewers to provide two types of notes: technical revisions and feedback on the writing, organization and effectiveness of the resume.
Once you get feedback, discuss it with them for a few minutes. Remember, don’t take constructive criticism personally! They are trying to help you, and their points of view may be similar to that of the employer. Your goal is to create a resume that most people will appreciate.
Once you obtain proper feedback, you can work on improving your resume. Try to incorporate your reviewers’ suggestions. Their ideas may even make you think of other ways to improve your resume! Most importantly, always remember that once you have made your revisions, review your resume again before you send it out!
The stronger your resume, the better your chance of getting an interview and landing a meaningful job. Just by following these simple tips, you will be well on your way to resume success, creating a clear, detailed, and concise document designed to impress employers. So, get writing and get yourself noticed!
A good resume can help you land an interview, but even minor errors can take you out of the running. Schedule an appointment with a counselor to ensure it will be effective.
Quick Resume Tips:
- Use the position description to decide what to include.
- Pick a standard and consistent format.
- Describe your experiences with specificity and strong action verbs.
- Record accomplishments and contributions, not just responsibilities.
- Revise carefully!
- Don’t include personal information about your age, religion, health or marital status.
- Photos are generally not preferred for U.S. resumes.
- Typically, you will not be expected to share past salary information on a resume.
- Employers assume that “references will be available upon request,” so you don’t need to include them on your resume unless asked.
- Employers may use keyword scanning on resumes, so know what words are relevant to the industry and position and ensure they appear in your resume.